Informal settlements, in which at least 1.4 billion of the world’s poorest people live, are terribly vulnerable to fire. Homes are crowded together and often constructed of flammable materials like wood, plastic, and cloth. Residents without reliable electricity or gas line access resort to cooking on open flames. Building safety codes are not enforced. And if a home catches fire and burns down, the family living there — which already had little — has to start over without any help.
South African startup and Accion portfolio partner Lumkani is offering a form of protection rarely seen in informal settlements: fire insurance. Its policyholders also receive an innovative fire detection device that sounds an alarm triggered by the heat of a nearby fire. The alarm gives residents a chance to seek safety, and the insurance payout helps them repair or replace items damaged in the blaze.
Because insurance is not commonly used by people in informal settlements, it can be hard to explain the concept and get buy-in. Lumkani has found that one effective way to achieve this is by hiring community members themselves as sales agents. Community liaison officer Clive, who supervises agents, explains that community feedback has been an important part of developing the policies and device. He says, “We asked individuals how we could design a product that would fit them and be affordable. I’ve seen where we’ve stopped fires and had an impact on people involved in the fires. It’s satisfying to know we can cover people’s homes and their goods. I believe we are a big answer to these communities.”
Sales agents Kwanda and Zoliswa both spend their days making the rounds in their communities and signing people up for the service. A mobile app makes it easy to enroll new clients wherever they are. Says Zoliswa, “The reason I decided to work with Lumkani is the communication with the people in my community. It keeps me busy and updated.” Kwanda adds, “I saw an opportunity to improve my own community. It changed my life a lot. I earned respect. It helped me also see new directions and I started working around my community more.”
Other staffers who don’t work as closely with clients on the ground have also found a sense of community at Lumkani. Dinesh, a software engineer originally from Brazil, says, “I see humans as social animals, so it’s interesting to see the idea of communities, like townships. A device like this can be used to help improve the sense of community. I always wanted to do something to help people. I want to give back to the world. Because we have this social structure it’s easy to forget how people live, but working here helps you remember and have more empathy in general.”